Conditions may have been arctic in Croke Park on Saturday evening, but there was a warm feel to the outcome. Past difficulties in the capital were put aside as Tipperary hammered out an emphatic win over a depleted Dubs selection; it’s the perfect launch to the new league.
I have plenty memories of league games being played in icy conditions and Saturday’s ranks up there with the worst of them. It was a day for Eskimos and polar bears rather than hurlers. A relentless sheet of sleety rain swept in off the Irish Sea making conditions miserable for players and followers alike.
It’s the type of environment that tests the mettle of players, a point referenced by Michael Ryan in after-match interviews. Here’s where attitude counts and I suspect the manager will have been well pleased with what he saw. After a slow start the team warmed (?) to the task with the newcomers showing plenty of ambition in a very competitive panel.
To begin with let’s put this game in context. Once the respective teams were announced on Friday it was obvious that Tipperary needed a comprehensive win in this match. The All Ireland champions fielded a strong side: seven of the team started on September 4 and another four came on as subs that day.
Against that Dublin was heavily depleted. The Cuala contingent was unavailable; others were injured while some have left the panel for what are euphemistically termed personal reasons. The result was that Ger Cunningham put out a team which contained three of last year’s county minors: Paddy Smyth, Cian O’Sullivan and Donal Burke.
Tipperary won last year’s minor title (Limerick put out Dublin) yet it would be unthinkable for Michael Ryan to launch any of those lads into winter league games. Given modern-day strength and conditioning programmes it seems very unwise to push 18/19 year olds in at the deep end; the long term damage could be serious.
Anyway Tipperary’s more mature line-out was expected to win handsomely, though we shivered uneasily in the opening minutes as the Dubs made a sprightly start. Seamie Callanan wasn’t sharp enough to convert an early goal chance and after ten minutes we trailed four-one, Jason Forde our point scorer.
Thereafter and despite playing into the elements Tipperary settled to the job and the points began to reel off. Aidan McCormack was soon emerging as a man on form so that by half time we’d gone five-up.
The second half was one-way as Tipperary’s point-prolific effort opened a major chasm between the sides. Eventually Jason Forde pounced for our goal and the only glitch was a late consolation goal for the Dubs when Eamon Dillon batted in Donal Burke’s cross.
So it was a case of mission accomplished, albeit against poor opposition. The essential win was secured and with it a healthy credit balance of sixteen points to our account; the latter detail could be significant later if score difference is decisive.
On these occasions one is never inclined to make dogmatic judgments on anyone though there were still significant contributions that should be noted. Goalie Darragh Mooney enhanced his position as number two to Darren Gleeson. He faced some tricky deliveries in the first half but showed commendable composure.
In defence Paudie Maher once again turned in a towering display. His second half pluck-and -point was one of those little cameos that will stick in the mind just like the hit on Canning or the hook on Cooney or the catch and point in last year’s All Ireland. He’s become such an essential team leader now that I dread to think of the day we’ll be without him.
The rest of the defence too was mostly unbothered, with the newcomers, Donagh Maher, John O’Keeffe and Tossy Hamill, doing their prospects no harm. Brendan Maher was his usual workhorse at midfield while in attack Aidan McCormack and Jason Forde took the scoring honours. McCormack’s five points was a huge haul.
Steven O’Brien’s presence at half forward was watched with interest; he had a busy first half getting lots of possession and using it intelligently. He’s not a scorer but I suspect that’s not the role the management envisages for him.
It was just as well that players like Forde and McCormack were on song because neither Seamie Callanan nor ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer raised a flag from play. Callanan was soundly beaten by his marker, Eoghan O’Donnell, and ‘Bubbles’ had minimal influence on the game. Noel McGrath was industrious throughout.
These are worrying times for Ger Cunningham and Dublin hurling. I noted afterwards the manager put the spotlight on the players suggesting that they’ll have to decide if that level of performance is good enough. I suspect there are others in Dublin more inclined to put the focus on the manager and ask why certain players left the panel. They have problems.
Anyway the league moves on swiftly with Tipperary having to travel to Walsh Park on Sunday next for a clash that’s certain to be entirely different to last Saturday. Waterford’s victory over Kilkenny will have buoyed them ahead of their first re-match with Tipperary since that Munster final drubbing last summer.
Viewing the Nowlan Park match on Sunday one was struck by the physicality of the contest as both sides waded in heavily. The Deise seemed determined not to be bullied and sailed close to the wind a few times in their efforts. I expect they’ll be similarly feisty on Sunday next with the hurt of last year’s Munster final an added encouragement.
We’ve lost our last two league engagements with Waterford, each by a single point. Last year we got caught at the end by a massive Austin Gleeson free. It was little consolation afterwards to view the incident on video and realise that there was actually no foul committed.
The previous year we met them at Nowlan Park in a league semi-final and again fell a point short, Pauric Mahony this time hitting the precious winner. Maybe it was some consolation that Waterford went on to take that title in 2015.
Once again there will be much interest in the selected line-out to take the field at Walsh Park. One assumes there will be changes as the management gives game time to more panelists. John O’Keeffe went over on his ankle last Saturday and is not expected to be fit to resume; there seems to be more optimism concerning Donagh Maher who also took a knock in Dublin.
One assumes then that the management will shuffle the pack a little once again for this encounter. The counties have met in the league on 44 previous occasions with Tipperary well ahead on 32 wins, the Deise on 9 victories and there were three draws. It promises to be a testing occasion on Sunday. The bookies have Tipperary listed as marginal favourites on 5/6 against Waterford’s 6/5. I wouldn’t be gambling money on this one.
Apart from the league there’s another important fixture next weekend at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday where Our Lady’s Templemore take on St. Colman’s of Fermoy in the Harty Cup decider.
There was one previous final meeting between the schools back in 2002 when the Cork nursery proved far too strong. That was the middle year of a three-in-a-row for Colman’s who have since hit more barren times.
Templemore’s solitary Harty success was in far-off 1978 so it would be sweet to bridge that thirty-nine year gap. They’ve been a fancied team in this competition since the start of the campaign and now stand just one game away from their own piece of history. Losing last year’s final to Ardscoil Ris of Limerick should be an added spur, as well as offering valuable experience to many of these lads.
The Cork/Tipp flavour to the event should add spice though that age-old rivalry has taken a lull in recent times as something of a rebel famine took hold. Anyway Templemore carry high expectations going into this final so here’s hoping they deliver another boost to Tipperary underage hurling.
P.S. I’m a collector of match programmes but Sunday’s offering at Croke Park won’t rate as a treasured one. In 47 pages the only nod they could give to the All Ireland hurling champions was a one-page Q & A with Ronan Maher. Otherwise it was all football and Dublin without even a pretence at balance. Perhaps we’re spoiled in Thurles with the high quality of productions but this was an unworthy effort.
P.P.S. Limerick manager, John Kiely, was irate at the refereeing display in his side’s defeat to Wexford. Looking at the match highlights no one could disagree. Imagine the outburst if the roles were reversed and Davy’s side was on the receiving end of those decisions? It prompts a question: how many controversies are allowed before those in authority eventually recognise that some referees are simply not up to the task.